Skip to main content

Results day for the COVID kids of 2020

Results day for A-level and BTEC students today must be the most contentions and chaotic in history. The stress they have endured is also greater that any before them and I wish them the best of luck in their careers and lives at a difficult time. They will know that the award of grades based on a school’s past record, and not the ability and attainment of them as individual students, will go down as one of the blunders of the century. The determination to apply a ‘standardisation’ model, instead of using individual student past records, is either very stupid or is wilful to fix the system in favour of independent schools and those in more advantaged areas. Many will be suspicious and will be dissecting the data in the months to come to reveal the facts behind government policy. One thing I now know is that, had this method been applied in my results year of 1972, I would have been propelled along a very different career path. It is a sobering thought. 

Today A-level and BTEC students received their results. Of 780,000 exams entered in England (Ofqual, ‘Guide to AS and A level results for England, 2020’, over 39.1% had the predicted grades marked down. Around 1,560 were downgraded by three grades. 
Taken from the Ofqal informatic today

The BTEC qualifications are solely the preserve of Pearson and their ‘standardistion methods have a greater chance of being on target due to the extent of course work included. Indeed, those in Northern Ireland Wales had the advantage of earlier AS-levels and some course work to fall back on. The real tragedy in England is that too much guess work was factored in because of the reforms of Gove in 2015 that focused all on final exam results and entrenched the disadvantages in the current round of results. The anger felt by many heads, teachers and students in schools affected the most will not go away (BBC News today ‘A-levels: Heads warn of 'unfair' grades for students’). 

The saving grace today is that, despite downgraded results, more are finding university places due to the spaces left by international students not coming (see UCAS data releases). The government is hiding behind this to avoid facing the real impact of the results and asking everyone to move on. However, time will tell if there is wider access for disadvantaged students to the ‘elite’ universities and professional courses. Then there comes the problem of finance, but that is another story to unfold in the coming weeks. 

Memories of last year. 

Last August, I posted on TEFS the reaction to the A-level results that revolved around concerns from many quarters that standards were seen as declining (TEFS 16th August 2019 ‘The A-Level results are out: The big fish in small ponds to be released’). A few days before, The Sunday Times decided to crash a wrecking ball into the system with, ’Revealed — A-level results are 48% wrong’. They were reviving Ofqual’s own research from November 2018 ‘Ofqual ‘Research and Analysis: Marking consistency metrics’. This was a rigorous description and analysis of how the system worked, but also showed all too clearly the degree of variability on scores. In January, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute ,‘1 school exam grade in 4 is wrong. That’s the good news…’ by Dennis Sherwood of the ‘Silver Bullet Machine’ consultancy, revealed more. This was very concerning, but at least the candidates and their schools knew the limitations of the system. 

The use of broad grades seemed to be at the root of a problem with marks near to the boundaries more likely to drop to the wrong side. TEFS concluded in the system last year the “Many genuinely disadvantaged students may find they are ill prepared to face the challenges, whilst others with more resources are tactically in the ascendancy”. This year, there has been a lack of transparency in the methods in the run in to results day. 

More transparency is needed to restore confidence. 

In August 2018, I posted another view on A-level results day with, ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’. I concluded that there was little change in the way the system was moderated and that “We live in an information driven world that is revealing a tarnished history in fairness and opportunity”. In 2020, we seem to have an explosive mixture of mistrust and a lack of information about the system. Last week, TEFS made ‘TEN suggestions’ in an effort to back out of the situation and at least restore some confidence. The Scottish government has made some progress, but with results already with the universities last Friday, and decisions on places being made by today, there is not much time to adjust the grades. Wales and Northern Ireland have the confidence of knowing past AS-level grades and can refer to them. But the Wales Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, only made a last ditch announcement yesterday evening and “guaranteed that a learner’s final A Level grade cannot be lower than their AS grade”

My ‘epiphany’ moment about exams. 

My ‘epiphany’ realisation, that led to my ongoing cynicism about a socially rigged system, came on the morning of Sunday 10th July 1977 as I perused a long article in the Observer, ‘GCE – Sitting in with the markers’. I had graduated and was about to start on my PhD in Microbial Biochemistry at Cardiff; I was only taking a passing interest in A-levels at that stage. The following Sunday, I was even more shocked to read more revelations in the Observer, ‘GCE – Pass or fail – How the examiners decide’ (I have accessed these via the British Library but I am unable to post a direct link, sorry).

Journalist, Ian Mather, had been allowed unprecedented access to the workings of the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB), the same board examinations I had taken A-levels with back in 1972. By February 1978, a series of three reports in the Guardian by John Fairhall delved further with, ‘How GCSE and CSE became big business’ (8 February 1978), ‘The myths about exam standards’ (9 February 1978 ) and ‘A new look for education’s ability meters’ (10 February 1978). 

Up to that point, it is probably fair to say that I, and others, were resigned to accepting assessment grades with a fair degree of trust in the system acting fairly. To see how the grade boundaries were rigged was truly a shock. The ‘standardisation’ used then was designed to limit the numbers going to university with a dubious constriction of the 'Robbins Principle' (’Robbins Committee on Higher Education Report, 1963’). This was being redefined by the elite from "available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment" to ‘available to the proportion of students that we decide in advance’. Change was in air as the revelations emerged before publication of the ‘Waddell Report (1978) School Examinations’ in July of that year. This led to a radical change with the abolition of the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) and its merger with O-levels to form the GCSEs we have today. 

The system before Wadell meant that 30% were set up to fail at A-level from the outset. Also, that only 35% were going to get above grade C, the level needed for university entry in most cases. My further investigation at the time revealed that the grade C band was less than 5% wide in many cases, meaning that a few small errors on a paper could easily plunge a good candidate from grade B to D and well out of university contention. This had happened to me five years earlier when it had all turned on what I did on one afternoon. 

My experience in 1972 and a lucky escape 

I rolled up at school in the summer of 1972 to get my results knowing that I had probably missed out because of one exam mess-up. Throughout school I had been accelerated through O-levels and A-levels a year early. The school did this so that its best students could at least get some O-levels before turning fifteen. Students today would find it hard to believe that many, especially from working class backgrounds, left a year before they would sit O-levels at sixteen. Many entered apprenticeships at fifteen with what Oscar Wilde once announced, "I have nothing to declare but my genius". Still etched in my memory is the same advice from my school careers adviser who also told me that “university is not for the likes of you”. Instead, my family became convinced of my ability from my O-level success that propelled me into the sixth form a year early. The downside is that I had to take on a part-time job at the same time to help pay my way.

The School leaving age was only changed to sixteen from September 1972 onward. This was part of the government’s ‘White Paper: Education: A Framework for Expansion (1972)’ that expanded education at all levels. Some may find it odd that it came out when Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education, despite reflecting the mood at the time. But its roots were firmly in the bold plans for expanding education that started under the Labour Government from 1964. 

As I said, I managed my efforts at school whilst working part-time; a fact that the school duly failed to spot when making considerable demands of me. I was only seventeen when I had a good offer from a Medical School that is now in a Russell Group University. But I specifically had to get a grade B in Physics to gain entry. I sat my first A-Level exam earlier that year in Physics when I was still sixteen and, basically, I messed it up. Without knowing at the time, the events that fateful exam afternoon had triggered a major change in my life, and I had a lucky escape from a medical career that I was not suited to. A few percent lost on the paper and I had escaped. I waited a year, got many unconditional offers and embarked on a successful career in Biosciences with Biochemistry and Microbiology as my major interest. It is also likely that the lives of many would-be patients were saved that day. 

What would happen to me today? 

The question I ask today is ‘What would have happened to me if there were no exams and the standardisation of results of 2020 applied back then?’ I was in a grammar school with a good record and I was predicted to get good grades. Not all medical schools would take a seventeen-year-old student, but after an interview, I had a very good offer from one that could. Yes, I would probably have received the grades predicted and set off for Manchester Medical School and into a nightmare. I think I was very lucky. 

However, this will not be the experience of many students today. Some may learn over time, through taking another year out and/or changing direction, that they might have been lucky too. But I fear the system has today had an adverse effect on far too many of the others. There will be anger that the downgrading cuts have fallen on their schools from disadvantaged areas and did not protect them as individuals. I am certain that, had I been aware in 1972 that the grade boundaries were rigged, and 2 or 3 percentage points on a paper could have changed everything, I would have been furious. Instead, my school seemed to have abandoned me when I needed help and time to rethink. I am eternally grateful to the head careers adviser at Coventry City Council who agreed to give up a lot of his time to meet with me in their careers library, that was stocked with all of the UK University and Polytechnic prospectuses (no internet or online information in those times). He turned my life around. I hope students today will get similar good advice and support and take careful stock of their situation.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


Popular posts from this blog

Ofqual holding back information

Ofqual has responded to an FOI request from TEFS this week. They held a staggering twenty-nine board meetings since March. Despite promising the Parliamentary Education Committee over a month ago they would publish the minutes “shortly” after their meeting on 16th September, they are still not able to do so. They cite “exemption for information that is intended to be published in the future” for minutes that are in the “process of being approved for publication” . More concerning is they are also citing exemption under the “Public Interest Test”. This means they might not be published, and Ofqual will open themselves up to legal challenges. If both the Department for Education and Ofqual are prevented from being more open, then public interest will lie shattered on the floor and lessons will not be learned.  Ofqual finally responded to the TEFS Freedom of Information (FOI) request to publish the minutes of its board meetings on Tuesday. It should have been replied to by 17th Septembe

COVID-19, SAGE and the universities ‘document dump’

The recent release of several documents by SAGE all at once was described by one observer as a “dump of docs”. They relate to returning to education this autumn and are somewhat confusing as they illustrate the complexities of the challenges still to be tackled. But there is much not fully addressed. Outbreaks of COVID-19 at universities spilling into local communities might also trigger city-wide lock-downs and a bad reaction from the locals. The mass migration of students to their hometowns will spread the chaos wider afield as there seems to be little evidence of planning for this inevitability. Less advantaged students in poor accommodation or crowded homes will be at greater risk along with their vulnerable peers coping with health conditions. While students may be asked to ‘segment’ or form ‘bubbles’ staff might not have the same protection. Asking vulnerable lecturers and other staff with ongoing health conditions to move from classroom to classroom, contacting differen